Atheists’ Billboards in NJ, NY, Pennsylvania Stir Debate

Carolyn Weaver

The message, in English and Arabic, is blunt. “You know it’s a myth. You have a choice,” declares the billboard in a Muslim community in Paterson, New Jersey. An identical one, with a Hebrew translation, was erected in Brooklyn, New York. Both were installed by American Atheists, a private organization with 4,000 members, to publicize its upcoming national convention in Washington.

David Silverman, president of the group, said the billboards are meant to reach secret nonbelievers in Muslim and conservative Jewish communities. He said those communities repress the nonbelievers among them.

“These billboards are here to tell them they are not alone,” he said in Paterson, New Jersey, recently. “To give the message that people do have a choice, that even if their friends and family are all of the same religious beliefs, and are all part of their insular communities, they still have a choice. There’s nothing forcing them to live the life of a lie.”

Silverman calls atheists the “most hated minority” in America. He debated the point on the street with Mohammed Qatanani, the Imam of a nearby mosque, the Islamic Center of Passaic County.

“I think it is a kind of not-acceptance, a kind of converting people,” the Imam said. “You want to convert people that God is a myth, but God is not a myth.”

Silverman said that was not the case. “I don’t think I’m trying to convert anybody,” he said. “I’m trying to talk to people who already know it’s a myth. I’m not going to convert anybody with a billboard. Does this billboard shake your faith?"

Imam Qatanani said that there is no compulsion in Islam, that it can only be freely chosen. He said that many Muslim scholars now believe that punishment for Muslims who leave the religion cannot be justified, and that there is no such requirement in the Quran.

The billboard in New York was originally set to be installed atop a building in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood. But local residents objected, and the sign was moved to an expressway, where it is mainly visible to people in passing cars.

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a heavily Christian community, a different billboard caused an outcry, with its graphic image of a black man in chains suggesting that the Bible endorsed slavery.

To some, the image was racist. But officials with the state chapter of American Atheists, which paid for the message, said it was to protest the state legislature's declaration of 2012 as the “Year of the Bible.”

In Paterson, Qatanani told Silverman that the billboard could serve Islam, by creating opportunities to talk with nonbelievers.

He said that his religion calls on him to share it with others, because it is “the best thing in our life. The gift that we have is religion. I like it to be for everybody, not just me,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to accept each other.”

“So, you know for a fact I’m never going to convert to Islam, never. Can we still be friends?” Silverman asked.

“Absolutely,” Qatanani answered, handing him a copy of the Quran and a pamphlet about Islam. “But I will give you this to convert you. Please, read them and come back.”

The atheist and the Imam laughed and shook hands.

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: N.
March 29, 2012 12:44 PM
I dont think that orthodox religous communities should be allowed such an outrage when someone questions their beliefs.. after all everyone is allowed to question science, right?

by: fy
March 19, 2012 7:35 PM
Atheism will not generate crime.

by: Justin Timberlake
March 15, 2012 12:25 PM
Very bold statement in the conservative America. it is was in southern states it could have been different story.

by: NVO
March 15, 2012 6:37 AM
To espouse atheism, is to say you have have searched the far corners of the universe to prove there is no God, this is humanly IMPOSSIBLE. On the other hand faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ= Romans 10:17. Prepare to meet YOUR God=Amos 4:12 AND THAT INCLUDES YOU SO-CALLED ATHEISTS!

by: Cha Cha Cohen
March 15, 2012 6:12 AM
Atheism only breeds crime!

by: Robert Makoi
March 14, 2012 7:43 PM
To Mr. Nabi (Afghanistan, USA Finland); if there is no quranic support for forcing islam on others, why do muslims kill infidels? Islam in my opinion is NOT a religion of tolerance, ask Salmon Rusdie!

by: Jilly
March 13, 2012 4:07 PM
I think the billboards are GREAT!! It's a shame when theists are able to put up their billboards in any location and it not make the news, but a non-believer has one put up and it's all of a sudden "offensive"....
What a classic, hypocritical statement by theists.....

by: Nabi
March 13, 2012 11:46 AM
i must say i see and agree to both the points from the atheists and from the imam. islam does not force you to come or stay in a religion. there is no quranic support for that and for something so important in human life i would think the quran itself would be clear about it. second the atheists are right to liberate those who really do not believe, in their religion or even atheism but are there cause of 'family' reasons where they really rather be jew, christian, muslim or other.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanoni
John Owens
October 08, 2015 7:32 PM
Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video Self-Driving Cars Getting Closer

We are at the dawn of the robotic car age and should start getting used to seeing self-driving cars, at least on highways. Car and truck manufacturers are now running a tight race to see who will be the first to hit the street, while some taxicab companies are already planning to upgrade their fleets. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Clinton Seeks to Boost Image Before Upcoming Debate

The five announced Democratic party presidential contenders meet in their first debate next Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton continues to lead the Democratic field, but she is getting a stronger-than-expected challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video South Carolina Reels Under Worst-ever Flooding

South Carolina is reeling from the worst flooding in recorded history that forced residents from their homes and left thousands without drinking water and electricity. Parts of the state, including the capital, Columbia, received about 60 centimeters of rain in just a couple of days. Authorities warn that the end of rain does not mean the end of danger, as it will take days for the water to recede. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs